Expo 53: Building for the future | Monocle

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If you’ve ever wondered where the Cannes Film Festival’s red velour carpets end up or what happens to its acres of plastic marquees off-season, look no further than Mipim. The annual Marché International des Professionnels d’Immobilier is a gloves-off property jamboree that sees 20,000 speculators, architects, developers and property giants inhabit Hollywood’s favourite Mediterranean stomping ground each spring.

For four days in March Cannes becomes a microcosm for the global property market – Mipim is where cities come to ply investors with their master plans, where architects come to find their clients and where civic leaders swap notes, make alliances and check out the competition. It’s here the utopian cityscapes of the future are plotted, showcased and sold. And, increasingly, it’s where cities are rebranded and relaunched. In the bright Riviera sunshine the complex dance between the moneyed, the civic and the creative (with their shifting hierarchies and complex economic machinations) makes for a heady mix.

With property comes a rambunctious crowd. Every inch of the French town is thick with men in sharp suits talking square footage. In the art deco Hôtel Martinez businessmen plot million-euro deals over bottles of Ruinart and fin de claire oysters. Cannes’ famous Promenade de la Croisette is packed with moneymen drinking weak black coffee in endless hospitality tents and the marina is heaving with corporate yachts full of executives clustered on deck – deep in intense meetings – and flanked by their burly security guards.

Most of the action takes place on dry land in Cannes’ Palais des Festivals, the labyrinthine 1980s exhibition centre that dominates the waterfront. Inside, it only takes a turn of the vast complex to see who is faring well in the fiscal crisis. Unsurprisingly, this year Germany is “Country of Honour”, and well-heeled teams of tousled-haired representatives from Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Berlin dominate the scene. Greece is manifestly absent. A forlorn stall “Specialising in Distressed Assets and Investments” says it all for Spain. And the sprawling model of Baku’s White City that sits under a portrait of Azerbaijan’s autocratic leader Ilham Aliyev speaks of the Central Asian nation’s decree to transform a patch of toxic industrial land into a radical ecological town, with the help of Foster + Partners.

Sleek branding and impressive models are only half of the story. A more accurate gauge of who is riding high on the global property scene is the mood in each booth: the crowds sipping lunchtime vodka shots at Warsaw, the Kir-swilling bonhomie in the CÔte d’Azur’s corner and the plucky groups of entrepreneurs promoting Egypt’s future give a palpable insight into each region’s fortunes.

Unsurprisingly again, south Germany is where it’s at. There is a constant, near-jubilant crowd at the Frankfurt stand quaffing iced beer and smoking complimentary cigarettes. There are even teams of chefs handing out gourmet frankfurters and sauerkraut. In Stuttgart’s enclosure, the city’s futuristic yellow and white booth is packed with visitors. “They like it here because we get the afternoon sun,” says Wolfgang Schuster, the long-time lord mayor of Stuttgart, as he lays out his city’s plan to create a carbon-free community in his corner of Baden-Württemberg. “It’s always been the case that some cities and some countries are doing better than others and, at this time, fortunately it’s the Germans who are the frontrunners. Almost every week I get a big investor coming to Stuttgart asking for a huge investment. This is not the case in other areas.”

Even Germany’s once debt-ridden capital is in hot demand. At the Berlin stand a presentation on the redevelopment of the city’s old airports, Tempelhof and Tegel, draws a crowd of onlookers. Here, the message is clear: Berlin’s artsy capital is growing and so is its property sector. “We are lucky to have an increase in population in the past few years so we’re looking at developing sites within the city,” says Manfred Kühne from the German Senate. “We don’t want to give up the architectural traditions of our city. But we want to have innovation. This is something you’re really going to see at Tempelhof. We’re going to see a library there, a residential development and a horticultural garden. What we’re dealing with is one of the world’s largest listed buildings. Mipim is a very good chance for us to showcase this.”

But despite the crowds, Mipim isn’t what it was. In the riotous crush to register on the event’s opening morning, ranks of jostling delegates reminisce about the truly wild days when the property market was at its zenith. “The year 2007 can only be described as crazed,” says one. “There were moneymen running from stand to stand. The Russians were here in force. This – this is tame.”

Now, opulent surroundings provide a reassuring ballast for a sector that’s still in recovery. “When the crisis first struck what we saw almost immediately is that everyone contracted back,” says David Green Morgan, global capital markets research director of the services firm Jones Lang LaSalle, a company which advises investors on property purchases. “The majority of investors moved back to their home markets, to the territory they knew the best. That’s starting to change. But slowly.”

The fiscal crisis has profoundly altered the character of Mipim. Since the hubris of 2007, the event has morphed into a different beast. Increasingly, the fair has become a forum for civic leaders to debate ideas and discuss social models. The focus is less about deals and money and more about ideas. More and more civic figures are using the event to congregate – mayors from São Paulo to Malmö swap ideas on urban themes from sustainability to commercial space and local identity in a globalised world. “It’s a big change,” says Monica von Schmalensee, ceo of the Swedish practice White Arkitekter, as she gathers her notes together to give a talk on green health care. “[This event] used to be about fancy buildings and islands in Dubai. Now people are much more interested in hearing about sustainability. We’ve started to talk about social housing, affordable housing, healthy cities. Investors are starting to understand these issues are critical. We are approached by so many different investors. They’re curious about what’s happening in Sweden. Mipim has changed, really. Out of necessity.”

The new-style Mipim has become a platform for re-launching cities on the international scene. At the Tokyo stand, complete with sushi chef and Kagamiwari demonstration, the metropolitan government makes an open bid to entice foreign businesses to set up shop in the Japanese capital. “We came to Mipim to promote the city,” says Shigeru Watanabe, senior director for policies. “I’m sure you know that business is growing in Asia, in China, in Korea, in Taiwan. Tokyo is facing this big challenge and it doesn’t want to lose against these cities such as Shanghai or Singapore. So far Tokyo has been a very uncompetitive city. We have had more than 40 per cent taxes for foreign business. Now we are changing that to 28.9 per cent.”

In essence, Watanabe’s message is about culture. His plans include everything from language reform to integrated schooling for foreign residents. “Tokyo is the safest city in the world,” he says. “We also have some of the best medical care in the world. However, Tokyo doesn’t have the right answer for non-Japanese speaking people. The English language is not used enough. We are making an effort to make English people more comfortable in Tokyo. Our message is that Tokyo is open for business.”

Despite all the international exhibitors, Mipim is a very French affair. The biggest launch of all is “Le Grand Paris”, a huge plan to develop the outer areas of the Île-de-France region and build 72 new metro stations, 200km of track, thousands of new homes and a cluster of iconic new luxury towers in La Défense, the city’s ever-growing business district. “Paris has long been a kind of museum city and Bertrand Delanoë [the current mayor] has decided that Paris should be Rome and California,” says Christian Sautter, the city’s deputy mayor over coffee on his city’s breezy terrace. “So we have a proactive strategy of economic development, creating new jobs and creating international attractiveness. Paris is on the move. We are here at Mipim to showcase this as one unit – Le Grand Paris. All the elements of the project have come together for the first time.”

Mipim is partly about seducing investors and partly about showing off. In the Russian Federation’s enormous tent, tall blonde women in five-inch-high red stilettos hand out brochures depicting super-schemes for cities in the outer reaches of the former ussr such as Krasnodar, Khabarovsk, Sochi and the Chechen Republic.Architectural models range from gaudy to artisan.

Nowhere more so than the freestanding Qatar tent where a beautiful wooden model made of elm, oak and British ash lays out the masterplan for Doha. “This is her highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned’s vision,” says the young urban planner, Bassam Eisa Al Mannai, as he points out the features of the stunning model outlining a scheme to tear down a large swathe of Doha and replace it with modernist blocks. “She is the reason I love my work. This is about showing the world we have an architectural vision that reflects our history.”

It’s clear Qatar isn’t fishing so much for investors; more compliments and prestige. The project is next to the lavish stand of the Qatari Diar Real Estate Company (the sovereign state wealth fund) which boasts €26bn worth of assets in 29 countries. “Including half of London,” mutter some British architects who marvel at the quality of the model and its intricate latticework. “They’ve bought half the Olympic site, did you know? And the Chelsea Barracks.”

That’s Mipim for you. A vivid allegory of the world property market: its foibles, contradictions and its inevitable, unstoppable momentum. The event is far from perfect but it’s also a melting pot that is a real reflection of the way the world’s cityscapes emerge. Mipim brings together cloistered cliques of urbane architects with the shiny suited speculators that so often fund their work. And, increasingly, it brings the civic leaders into the mix too. It’s a forum where crude deals and candid debate on our urban future happen all at once. It’s not always pretty. But the more the two collide, the better.

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